Projects

This page is to explain some of the projects I’m working on right now.

The Irish harp tradition through the long 19th century

We always used to talk about how the Irish harp tradition died out about 200 years ago, and how the last of the old harpers met in Belfast in 1792.

However I now see that this is completely wrong. In May 2022 I was researching George Jackson (1833-1909), who fitted brass wire strings to a harp in 1908; his teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher was an early 18th century Irish harper.

George Jackson was my inspiration to start seriously looking for information about Irish harpers in the inherited tradition, playing wire-strung Irish harps, with lineages back through the generations to the 18th century harpers. I wanted to know all about them – their names, places, social contexts, harps, repertories, styles… The “long 19th century” refers to the time period starting with the Belfast meeting in 1792, right through to the death of George Jackson in 1909.

I now know of three people still alive after 1900, who had learned to play the Irish harp in the inherited tradition with a lineage of teachers back through Arthur O’Neil.

Of course this overlaps with the Gaelic revival from the 1890s onwards, and so one big question is how and why the revival harpists, playing gut-strung lever harps, completely ignored the tradition-bearers playing big wire-strung Irish harps.

I’m also interested in how these tradition-bearers have been marginalised, ignored, or dismissed, by modern wire-strung harp revivalists who focus on the medieval origins of the tradition.

So far I have mainly been reading, and collating references and information. I now have almost 70 names on my database of traditional harpers who were active between 1792 and 1909. I am starting to write up my discoveries here under the tag Long 19th century.

I think my project for the next while will be to make individual posts on individual harpers, trying to pull together as much about each one into one place, to build a picture of each of their lives.

Patrick Byrne in 1845

Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project

This was my main artistic and research project from Autumn 2019 through to Spring 2022, though it isn’t really finished and I will probably keep ticking along with it on and off. I have been searching for, identifying, categorising and analysing musical notations which appear to have been written down as live transcriptions of the playing of old Irish harp tradition-bearers. So far I have only found this kind of notation in the manuscripts of Edward Bunting. Mostly they seem to have been done by Edward Bunting himself, but I am starting to tentatively suggest one or two live transcriptions from harpers done for Bunting by other people. I hope that in time I may identify live transcriptions from harpers, made by other people in the 19th century, in other collections or archives.

By “transcriptions”, I am referring to notations that seem to have been written live, at speed, as a direct response to what a traditional informant was actually playing, in real time. I am distinguishing these from “copies” which are written more slowly and carefully, with deliberate thought, and also “arrangements” which have creative adjustments to the melody and added accompaniment, for the piano.

In January 2020, I wrote a blog post titled Old Irish harp transcriptions project, which marked the beginnings of writing up my work here.

The main research aims of this project are to narrow down the evidence for “what is old Irish harp performance style?” By ruthlessly excluding consideration of harp tunes that are passed down to us as piano arrangements, or through the fiddle, pipe or song tradition, I hope that we can get a more focussed view of the idiomatic Irish harp style which came to an end in the early 20th century. Creating a view of what the harp style is like will help inform revival attempts.


You might also want to look at my list of potential research projects, which I am probably not going to get around to doing, but which may be useful for private researchers or prospective PhD candidates looking for an idea of something they could usefully do.